In a corner of a foreign field

Why are refugees so eager to cross the Channel? If they are in Calais, they are already in England -

It was the summer of 1999 and a group of pensioners were playing boules in the public park opposite the town hall in Calais. Or rather, they were trying to play. Their eyes kept straying to a row of makeshift tents that had been put up by Kosovan refugees on the other side of the park, and, as a result, the boules would shoot off in the wrong direction.

The mood was black, and anti-Kosovan sentiment bordered on racism. The refugees were accused of stealing from local bakers, defacing "le parc" and, to cap it all, spoiling an afternoon at the boulodrome. Players muttered that if the French Communist Party failed to remove the intruders, it could lose control of Calais for the first time in 25 years.

The message was received. Within weeks, the authorities had requisitioned a Eurotunnel warehouse in the middle of sugar-beet fields next to the neighbouring village of Sangatte, and had dumped the 250 or so Kosovans in it. Games of boules resumed in the public park and, in municipal elections in March this year, Jacky Henin was re-elected mayor; Calais is now the biggest communist-run town in western Europe.

But this first attempt to end the refugee crisis proved as fruitless as all those that have followed over the past two years. The Red Cross now runs the Sangatte centre, which today houses more than 1,000 desperate and determined asylum-seekers from Iraq, Afghanistan, Turkey, Iran and elsewhere, all hoping to follow the Kosovans to Britain. They make nightly attempts to cross the Channel, jumping on to lorries at the port and on to the goods and car trains at the tunnel entrance, often risking their lives in the process. Four have been crushed to death by trains this year and more than 175 have been seriously injured.

"The sight after dark is incredible," said Bernard Barron, Henin's press officer. "In your car headlights, you can see groups of ten or 20 at a time, as they make their way towards the tunnel entrance or the port."

Eurotunnel has to pay about £8,000 a week to repair fences damaged by those trying to get through, and blames the Sangatte centre for its problems. The firm wants it shut down, in the apparent belief that the refugees would melt away if the Red Cross stopped looking after them.

But Jean-Marc Varlet, the deputy head of the Alliance police union in northern France, knows that this is not true. "These people have sold everything they own to get as far as Calais, and they are not going to give up. If we took them inland, they'd just come back by stealing cars or getting on trains without tickets."

As long as Britain continues to attract refugees, the Pas-de-Calais department will serve as a launch pad, Varlet said. After all, it is difficult to combat geography, as the people of Calais can tell you. They have been moaning about their proximity to Britain for the best part of 600 years, and for good reason - but they have learnt to put up with it.

It was in 1347 that King Edward III of England laid seige to the town at the start of the 100 Years' War, starving the inhabitants into submission and demanding the heads of the six wealthiest Calais citizens. Edward's victory turned Calais into one of the bases from which the English launched innumerable cavalcades across northern France, raping, murdering and stealing along their way. But this did not discourage the locals, for whom a burgeoning wool trade was ample compensation for the odd human rights abuse in neighbouring communities. Indeed, so natural was the town's attachment to England that it remained under English control for a further century, even after the war had ended. The town's identity problem has lasted to this day.

Is Calais French or British? Look in the British press, and you will find stories about Calais in the home pages, written by home reporters. Not even the Sangatte refugee crisis - as international an issue as any - is considered to be foreign news.

Politicians are also confused. In the run-up to the general election in June, for instance, the Tories took their campaign across the Channel, despatching Ann Widdecombe to Sangatte, where Red Cross officials duly barred her attempt to enter the centre.

The French authorities maintain that all this stems from typically arrogant British nonsense. But in truth, they, too, are a little perplexed. Calais, after all, is the only town in France where you have to fight for a glass of wine from restaurant waiters determined to foist beer on to you. It is the only town where the supermarket signs are in English. And it is the only town whose economy has almost always been dependent upon Britain.

This was a small fishing port with a population of fewer than 5,000 until the first half of the 19th cen-tury, when lace-makers from Nottingham set up shop there in a move to avoid import duties in Continental Europe. Despite British legislation imposing the death penalty on anyone caught exporting a trade in this way, the industry boomed to such an extent that, by the beginning of the 20th century, there were 35,000 workers in the town's lace factories.

"But it became virtually the only industry here, and so, when the recession arrived in the 1970s, we were in a bad position," said Georges Fauquet, a retired English teacher who is considered to be the best local historian.

The factories shut down, the locals started to vote communist and unemployment among the 87,000 residents rose to become one of the highest rates in France - 20 per cent in the mid-1990s and 16 per cent today.

Many Calais citizens would like to think that they could infuse new dynamism into the local economy without the help of the British, either by becoming a European enterprise zone dependent upon hi-tech business for jobs, or by becoming a Brezhnevian outpost, dependent upon the municipality.

Alas, neither model will work. "The tradition here is to curse the English," said Fauquet, "but, in truth, we may as well shut up shop without them."

More than 30 million people travel through Calais every year - the vast majority of them Britons - and locals have been making Herculean efforts to get them to stop off en route to the south.

Calais was a charmingly picturesque cobblestone French town until the Germans bombarded it in May 1940 to oust the Allies, and the Allies bombarded it over the next four years to oust the Germans. The town has been almost entirely rebuilt in what the French see as British taste - soulless and ugly. With its concrete buildings and a run-down station fronted by heavy metal doors, Calais looks like a sort of Coventry-by-the-sea. The main high street boasts a long line of pubs, a couple of cafes and some of the worst restaurants in France. Local specialities, such as the astonishing, pungent Boulette d'Avesnes cheese, are unavailable - in deference to Britons who are reputedly averse to strong smells and anyway, according to French prejudice, uninterested in gastronomy.

For the British, it is alcohol that counts, and in Calais it is alcohol they get. The 317 supermarkets and 24 hypermarkets in the department sell more wine and beer than any others in France, and they are largely responsible for the 4 per cent drop in unemployment over the past five years.

"I went to Carrefour recently and counted 34 coachloads of British tourists," Fauquet informs me. "At the checkout, local people were moaning that they could not get served. But I told them the only alternative was higher council taxes to pay for more job-seekers."

His argument holds sway and, despite the moaning and some resentment, Calais continues its bid to resemble Britain in everything except the tax on drink.

This is noble, but probably misguided. The British traveller likes to get drunk at little cost, but he wants to do so in an environment that has the veneer of local colour. Provence is a good example. So is Calais's neighbour, Boulogne-sur-Mer. Left intact during the war, Boulogne retains a charm that attracts the sort of day trippers who eat expensive meals and spend some money in small, locally run shops. This is unlike Calais, where they arrive, buy up their six-packs and get out again.

The aim of the refugees at Sangatte is much the same - minus the six-packs. There is, after all, little to make them want to stay: no jobs, no money, and not much sympathy from the local population. Add a rain-soaked landscape and violent riot police (whose speciality is spraying tear gas in the face of asylum- seekers), and you can understand their desire to leave.

For the many who have travelled across Europe hidden in the backs of lorries, this is their only vision of France - and they soon come to the conclusion that it is a godforsaken land.

Yet they are wrong. A majority of the migrants would have every objective reason to stay. Britain is not more generous than France in its welcome of asylum-seekers - indeed, in many respects, it is less generous. In France, for instance, those claiming refugee status do not have to suffer the humiliation of receiving welfare payments in the form of vouchers, and they do not find themselves locked in detention centres. The French economy may be regulated, and therefore averse to the black market job opportunities that migrants inevitably seek, but it is nevertheless solid. Work - outside Calais - is available.

On my half a dozen or so encounters with the asylum-seekers in Pas-de-Calais over the past two years, I have tried to make this point: "Why waste your last $1,000 or so, and risk your life, trying to get to a country that is no more hospitable than the one you are in?" The response is always the same. As Abdullah Hunor, 25, put it, looking one way across the sugar-beet fields towards the Carrefour supermarket at the Eurotunnel terminal, and the other towards the white cliffs of Dover: "England is a good country for me. France is not."